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This app helps refugees learn English by chatting online with volunteers

A new language learning app called Chatloop is connecting refugees with volunteers to boost their language skills and connect the local community.

Language can be one of the biggest initial barriers to building a meaningful life in a new country, and Chatloop founder Michael Mersiades hopes to speed up the language learning process for refugees.

Chatloop is a simple, approachable system that allows English speakers to link up with a refugee looking to improve their English level. The participants do a communicative “activity” – have a chat or play a game – whenever it suits them, over the course of a few days. This casual, ongoing format means the time commitment for volunteers is minimal, but there are big potential benefits for refugees.

Mersiades developed the Chatloop concept while working on his PhD, hoping to find a solution to two problems: the language barriers that refugees face and the prohibitive time commitments of becoming a volunteer.

Michael Mersiades, founder of Chatloop, with two student interns

Michael Mersiades with two student interns at the Germinate (iLab, UQ) pitch night on 2 October.

For potential volunteers, the time commitment and travel involved with many volunteering opportunities can make it difficult to coordinate with work, kids and life. Mersiades faced this issue himself after visiting his grandparents’ homeland of Greece in 2015 and witnessing the refugee crisis first hand.

“You’d look… down at the ocean, and it’d just be full of orange and yellow life vests just floating in the water, washing up against the rocks,” he says.

“It’s a pretty physical, visible reminder of just what’s going on and the scope of this thing.”

He promised himself he would volunteer to help those refugees building a new life in Australia. However, like many potential volunteers, he found it hard to coordinate with multiple other commitments. To combat this, Chatloop’s format makes volunteering quick and simple.

“I was too busy as a PhD student… but as a [Chatloop] volunteer all you need to do is to send a couple of text messages a day, and you can do it on the bus or on the train or on your couch after dinner. Whatever works for you.”

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  • Currently, participants communicate in WhatsApp chats, with Mersiades on hand as a silent mediator ensuring everything is working smoothly.

    “[I] set up a system on WhatsApp, set up some spreadsheets, got some refugees on board and started doing it, and it’s just been growing and growing until that pilot kind of reached its maximum capacity.”

    Mersiades says the app is a necessary step to getting the concept to as many refugees as possible.

    “We need to automate it, because we’re aiming [to have] hundreds of thousands of people doing hundreds of thousands of these activities every day.

    “It’s not just a case of being a communication tool and letting people just talk to each other sort of un-monitored.”

    Two Chatloop volunteers sitting on couch.

    Two Chatloop volunteers interact with learners through a structured ‘activity’.

    “Each learner will get assigned a tutor, and the tutor will monitor the activities and give them unbiased feedback over the long term. Each activity will have a different partner, and they’ll be short-term relationships with those partners, but their relationship with the tutor would be longer term, and that’ll be really good in terms of motivation.”

    This format will also address the potential issue of “well-meaning volunteers accidentally saying things that can upset the refugees”, which can occur when strangers from different cultures interact in an online space.

    Unfortunately, Chatloop needs your help – and not just as a volunteer. The team just missed out on reaching its goal during its crowdfunding campaign, which concluded in early November. Keep up with the news on their Facebook page to find out how you can play a part in their mission to make Chatloop available to everyone.

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    Comment (4)

      Meagan

      Saturday 10 November 2018

      Chatloop is incredible. I’ve been volunteering on the pilot program for the last year now, and it’s just amazing to be able to communicate directly with refugees and help them with their language practice. It also allows me to only have to volunteer for a couple of minutes each day, which is perfect for my busy lifestyle. Developing an app will ensure that refugees from around the world will have access to this incredible platform!

      Reply
        Claire Bowman

        Claire Bowman

        Friday 16 November 2018

        Hi Meagan. I completely agree – it’s a great concept and I really hope to see it get off the ground! I’m sure you’re not the only one who found the style of the opportunity perfect for a busy life. Hopefully many more people will get the opportunity to help in the future.

        Reply

      Edith

      Saturday 10 November 2018

      I am a volunteer with Chatloop and it is an amazing concept which works very well. It was unfortunate that our crowdfunding didnt work out since the app could have built connecting more refugees to more volunteers. But I believe its only a matter of time before we get the money to build the app as everyone who comes to know about Chatloop believes in it!

      Reply
        Claire Bowman

        Claire Bowman

        Friday 16 November 2018

        Hi Edith. I’m also disappointed that the crowdfunding didn’t make it this time – it’s so logical to make volunteering easy and accessible, to encourage more people to get involved! I’m eager to see what great things this technology could do in the coming years.

        Reply